I watched as my client pressed their palms into the earth and slowly began to lift their body away from the floor, rising into a pose that I think neither of us could have ever imagined was in the cards: Urdhva Dhanurasana, the Wheel Pose.
I was literally so emotional witnessing it. This moment was the result of YEARS of hard work, patience (on both our parts) and consistent training. They had come so far.
From not being able to forward fold (in any position), minimal to no ability to rotate their torso, restricted range of motion in their shoulders from years of being hunched over, no core strength, no upper-body strength, no glute or hamstring strength, lacking cardiovascular fitness, and a history of lumbar disc dysfunction (for my Yoga teachers reading this: look at that list of contraindications, it basically knocks out like 98% of the postures in the traditional Yoga repertoire), to being able to perform an inverted backbend. This was truly a remarkable achievement.
When I left that session I knew that this was it for me: teaching private yoga classes was lighting my soul aflame.
But it didn't start off that way. Let's rewind.
STARTING OUT WITH STUDIO GROUP YOGA CLASSES.
I started my Yoga teaching career like many Yoga teachers: teaching studio group classes. I had witnessed first-hand the benefits of a regular Yoga practice and I wanted to share that magic with the world. My mission was simple: to grow my "following" (*cringe*) by teaching as many group classes throughout the city of Kuala Lumpur as my body and schedule could tolerate. My belief was that, with this amassed fame I would be able to teach workshops and Yoga teacher trainings to: 1) earn a decent enough living, 2) be desirous to studios, and 3) have the potential to travel and teach worldwide (the pandemic kind of made the latter come true but with me not ever having to leave my upstairs guest-room lol shameless plug for OMOLOGY ONLINE).
ATTACHMENT TO CELEBRITY.
Something inevitably happens, that Yoga teachers rarely speak about, when you start to become a "well-known" Yoga teacher and that is an attachment to celebrity and all of its byproducts. For example:
becoming accustomed to having your Yoga classes consistently full
anticipating being selected to teach for large Yoga events
having a dedicated following of students who religiously come to your classes (and only your classes)
expecting a higher rate of pay
acquiring more classes at the Yoga studios where you are teaching
Having experienced this myself and having witnessed it in so many teachers who've worked for me over the years (noticing how their energy levels and motivation totally bottomed out on days when class numbers are smaller, and their enthusiasm would reach peak heights on days when the class is packed) I can tell you that it is a common occurrence. Humans are social creatures and we are hardwired for belonging and so this situation wherein you develop prestige and admiration from a large group of people can totally get in your head and likewise make you fearful of losing that status.
To be fair, it is a pretty spectacular feeling when you start to see your group Yoga classes grow especially because so many Yoga teachers put a tremendous amount of work and perseverance into the process of building a student base. I always tell the teachers that train 200 Hours with me at OMOLOGY YOGA that building up a Yoga studio group class can take up to 3 months of consistent teaching in optimal conditions (so like, without pandemics and limited capacity and social distancing and basically all of the things that we've been working with in the past two years).
WHY I WASN'T INTO TEACHING PRIVATE YOGA CLASSES.
You can imagine why the idea of teaching to only one person may not have been the most appealing idea for me. For one thing, there was no adoring crowd. How was I to gain enough popularity to sell out workshops if I was only ever teaching to one person? Beyond that, I conducted most of my first private classes, before I opened my own studio, in people's homes which was less than ideal. I had one client who's home was FILLED with priceless art which I had to tip toe around to make hands-on adjustments literally praying to Shiva that my clumsy ass wouldn't knock anything over. Finally, most of my students had severe movement limitations which meant that my intermediate, ultra-creative sequences were completely off the table.
So I taught private classes minimally when and where I could fit them into my group class schedule which was my ultimate priority. The private clients that I saw regularly, I actually grew to really enjoy spending time with. Despite that, my preference was still for larger, studio group classes which I felt aligned with my career goals.
THE PANDEMIC AND IT'S AFFECT ON TEACHING YOGA.
I maintained this mindset until the pandemic surfaced in 2020. At that point I owned a studio and words cannot describe how devastating and impossible it was to run a business with public group movement classes during those two tumultuous years of lockdowns and fluctuating restrictions.
Pre-pandemic my classes were consistently booked out (sometimes weeks in advance). Then during the pandemic's aftermath, I watched as our studio capacity was chopped literally in half, obliterating any opportunity for us to break-even at month-end.
But the capacity it turned out, wouldn't be the problem. Even though I sanitised our mats and Yoga props with rubbing alcohol until my hands were raw, our studio would remain empty most days. People were not comfortable sharing space and physicality at that point. And who could blame them? It was a terrifying time and there was so little information available. Even I was nervous about continuing to teach group classes and having contact with so many different people each day.
THE YOGIC SCRIPTURES ON ATTACHMENT.
If you've read the the Yogic scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad Gita, then you know how they regard attachment. It is no bueno. It leads us to suffering which occurs when our expectations are dashed (ie: the class that is usually full suddenly has low attendance) and this the ultimate barrier to enlightenment.
Well, this is exactly what happened coming back to work in a post-pandemic atmosphere. The classes were small, the teaching staff was burnt out, and students were more scared than zen in Savasana. Not the vibe we were going for! It was all enormously unsatisfying.
TIME FOR A SHIFT.
I was still teaching my regular private classes and OMOLOGY ONLINE was doing really well and so it got me to thinking, that maybe I could quit the group class thing if it was no longer serving. Perhaps in that moment I was also saving my ego the embarrassment of showing up to yet another empty class, but something was telling me it went deeper than that. I'd taught group classes for a while, and I was really yearning for a new challenge.
And I found it in my private classes.
DISCOVERING THE LEARNING POSSIBILITIES IN PRIVATE CLASSES.
The pandemic took its toll on many bodies and the clients who approached me, were in need of some movement and wanted to do Yoga, but they also required specially tailored programs to address postural issues, old injuries, and movement limitations (which the average studio group Yoga class would not have been able to suitably address).
As I observed my students' movement and got to know them and their daily habits better, I started to get really curious about how posture and lifestyle affect our mobility and how different parts of the body relate to one another. I found it fascinating how dysfunction in one part of the body could affect movement elsewhere and how changing the position of a body part, even slightly, could allow a student to explore a posture that otherwise would have been unavailable if practiced with the strict, traditional alignment that would typically be cued in a group class setting.
To address existing movement limitations but, at the same time, still give my clients what would feel like a complete Yoga class, I wanted to develop individualised programming using a combination of movement modalities (such as mobility exercises, myofascial release, and strength training) with Yoga as the base, to accommodate their unique needs and goals.
A FUNCTIONAL (AND PERSONALISED) APPROACH TO PRIVATE YOGA CLASSES.
I started implementing a more feedback-oriented way of teaching. I would constantly ask my client "How do you feel in this pose?, Where do you feel sensation? Is there any pain at all here?" so that I could ensure that they were hitting the target areas or else suggest appropriate alternatives. My private classes started to feel like a dialogue and an exploration, always curious, never with judgement, even during moments when a posture was uncomfortable or inaccessible. With this dialogue, I realised that I was learning new ways to adjust for future students, and simultaneously I was empowering my current student to do this process of inquiry on their own, on the days when they are practicing without me. That is the ultimate goal: for my student to eventually be able to practice (confidently) independent of my guidance.
My curiosity led me to enrol in a training for injury management to refine my knowledge of anatomy and physiology, common injuries, and how best to navigate them in a movement setting. This, coupled with my feedback dialogue and my big bag of Yoga props helped me to feel confident troubleshooting different postural modifications with my private clients when needed.
I also designed an intake and assessment protocol. When students engage me for private training, I first sit down with them to talk about their goals and any injuries or movement limitations that they're presently working with. I love this part because it's where we get really real, without judgement, about what motivates us, where we're at, and where we want to be.
Most of my clients' goals are really humble, like wanting to be able to touch one's toes, or to be able to meditate, or being able to do a Chaturanga. The first time I did goal setting, what struck me was that they mostly just wanted to be able to live and move more comfortably. And I couldn't help but think back to what motivated me to teach Yoga in the first place.
I put together a simple series of movements to asses mobility, flexibility, range of motion, strength and overall understanding of the practice of Yoga. This would tell me where my client's movement ability was at, so that I could build my sequences accordingly. For me the entire process is like putting together pieces of a puzzle. Once I start to put more pieces together, I have a better understanding of 1) what movements work for a client's body, 2) which areas of the body require strengthening, and 3) which areas require mobilising. Then these factors are addressed in a series of different exercises linked together to form a Yoga-based movement sequence. And just like how a puzzle comes to completion quite quickly once you've got the outside bits in place, students tend to gain momentum and progress quickly once we know what works for their body.
Slowly but surely I found myself enjoying this process of building a movement practice with my private clients. I was getting excited before each session, delighting over my clients' progress, and leaving those one-on-one Yoga classes jollier than if I had just taught a bomb-ass flow at a sold out Yoga festival.
COMING BACK TO MY "WHY".
The ah-ha moment came one day when a client texted me after class to say, "thanks, I feel so much better now". It made me realise that teaching these one-to-one Yoga classes brought me back to my "why". It brought me back to why I started Yoga and why I wanted to share the practice with others.
I initially came to the mat more than a decade ago with a double knee injury and feeling like I was in a rut with my career. The practice gave me a non-judgemental space to retrain my body and work through my internal shit! After each and every practice, no matter how I showed up to the mat, I left feeling better in my mind, body and soul. The union of these facets of the human experience is what makes the practice of Yoga so incredibly unique and special.
I wanted to share that when I started teaching. I wanted to help others feel good too. At some point, the complexities of running a business, and building up group class numbers, and managing a staff diluted that rich feeling of purpose. Getting to work one-on-one with some incredibly earnest, hardworking, willing individuals, whom I will forever be grateful to for their trust, and witnessing their progress and how the practice impacts their lives off the mat made my work feel really meaningful again.
THE FINANCIAL ASPECT.
In addition to the fulfilment of having a positive impact on someone's life, this career path is definitely more financially rewarding than group Yoga classes ever were. I always aim to keep it real here, and healthy remuneration contributes to a positive energetic exchange which, I find, is important for deriving a feeling of satisfaction in the work that I do. I think this is especially important as a service provider. If you are giving and giving and not receiving anything (or not enough) in return, it is incredibly draining and demotivating. I have witnessed (and experienced first hand as a young Yoga teacher) what it is like to be in a negative energetic exchange: feeling mentally and physically exhausted, teaching a ton of Yoga classes for very little pay, etc. and the result is burnout and resentment.
As a teacher who used to be constantly burnt out trying to teach 10-15 classes a week to earn a living, I now teach A LOT less and I earn more than I ever have. I love that this allows me to conserve my energy and really give it my all for each of my private classes. If I have to do research on something for an upcoming session (I am constantly researching new movement techniques, modifications for exercises, different myofascial release methods) I have the time to commit myself fully to that process so that I can show up for my session well prepared.
I never have the feeling of "hauling ass" to class. I am energised and excited to teach. And because I am earning enough, I don't have to over-pack my schedule so I never have to rush off immediately after my session to another class. If my client wants to hang and chat for a bit after class, I am aways happy to do so. I love hearing about their lives, their kids, their travels, what books they're reading, or their podcast recommendations. It makes me really happy to be able to build lasting relationships.
PRIVATE CLASSES MADE ME A MORE SKILLED YOGA TEACHER.
I am undoubtedly a more skilled teacher because of what I've learned from my private classes. I have had the opportunity to work with so many different bodies and levels of experience. Learning how to teach Yoga to individuals with really complex movement limitations and/or injuries has made me more confident in my ability to modify, troubleshoot, and adjust a sequence to fit a client's specific needs no matter where I'm teaching.
These skills are not just useful for my future private classes. I am also better able to hold space and provide safe options for all bodies when I am teaching in a group or corporate Yoga class in Kuala Lumpur.
Most importantly, I've made sure to integrate this knowledge into my Yoga teacher trainings. For years as a young teacher I would dread having a student in my class with an injury because I didn't feel equipped to provide adequate modifications. So it makes me feel really proud to be able to offer my trainees guidelines for assisting students with more complex needs. And that, I believe, has a grander impact on the Yoga community as a whole.
Presently, when I am not teaching Yoga teacher trainings in Kuala Lumpur, my passion is working one-on-one with individuals in my Plaza Damas Yoga studio helping them enjoy the practice of yoga pain-free. I still teach the occasional group class and I have a lot more fun with them now because they're really special, one-off events. We all win when it's coming from the heart.